The Volokh Conspiracy

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Originalism in the Lower Courts in Sixth Circuit Abortion Case

In this case of first impression, Judge Bush turns to the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment


Today the Sixth Circuit decided Preterm Cleveland v. McCloud. This case upheld Ohio's law, which prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion, where the doctor knows that the woman is obtaining an abortion because the unborn child has down syndrome. The Sixth Circuit fractured quite badly. But a majority of the Court agreed that the Ohio law was constitutional under Supreme Court precedent.

Here, I'd like to highlight the concurring opinion from Judge John Bush (beginning on p. 40). He articulates how lower court originalist judges should approach cases of first impression.

First, Judge Bush explains that precedent must be followed "faithfully." Here he cites an opinion from Judge Pryor:

With these principles in mind, how do we balance our role as lower court judges with our duty to apply the Constitution's original meaning? First, of course, if a holding of the Supreme Court directly applies to a case, we follow it. Rodriguez, 490 U.S. at 484. In so doing, we cannot apply a "cramped reading" of the precedent that would "functionally overrule" it. Thompson v. Marietta Educ. Ass'n, 972 F.3d 809, 814 (6th Cir. 2020). Instead, we must apply precedent "neither narrowly nor liberally—only faithfully." United States v. Johnson, 921 F.3d 991, 1001 (11th Cir. 2019) (en banc).

Second, where there is no controlling opinion, courts must turn to the original meaning of the Constitution. Here Judge bush cites opinions from Judges Bumatay and Ho, as well as yours truly:

When no holding of the Supreme Court can decide a question, as in the case before us, our duty to "interpret the Constitution in light of its text, structure, and original understanding" takes precedence. See NLRB v. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. 513, 573 (2014) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment); see also Pierre Leval, Judging Under the Constitution: Dicta About Dicta, 81 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1249, 1274 (2006) ("The Supreme Court's dicta are not law. The issues so addressed remain unadjudicated. When an inferior court has such an issue before it, it may not treat the Supreme Court's dictum as dispositive." (emphasis added)). And if it is dubious whether a precedent "is correct as an original matter," we should "tread carefully before extending" it. Garza v. Idaho, 139 S. Ct. 738, 756 (2019) (Thomas, J., dissenting); see also Josh Blackman, Originalism and Stare Decisis in the Lower Courts, 13 N.Y.U. J. L. & Liberty 44, 51 (2019) ("[A] judge should only extend a Supreme Court precedent if the original meaning of the Constitution can support that extension."). In such a case, "the rule of law may dictate confining the precedent, rather than extending it further." NLRB v. Int'l Ass'n of Bridge Iron Workers, Local 229, 974 F.3d 1106, 1117 (9th Cir. 2020) (Bumatay, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc); see also Texas v. Rettig, No. 18-10545, slip op. at 18 (5th Cir. Apr. 9, 2021) (Ho, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc) ("[I]f we are forced to choose between upholding the Constitution and extending precedent in direct conflict with the Constitution, the choice should be clear."). 

Third, Judge Bush discussed the original public meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment:

In light of the Supreme Court's silence on that issue, we must look to the Constitution's original meaning. And it is clear that there is no bar in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, as it was understood at its ratification, to the legislative protection of unborn life with Down syndrome. Applied here, the central question for original meaning should be, "[w]hat did the average Joe (or Josephine)" from the ratification generation "understand the words" of the Fourteenth Amendment to mean? Turner v. United States, 885 F.3d 949, 957 (6th Cir. 2018) (Bush, J., concurring dubitante), cert. denied, 139 S. Ct. 2740 (2019). No such average person would have understood the operative phrase—"nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. XIV—to create a right to abort a fetus based on its genetic characteristics. New technology that increases knowledge about fetal genetics does not alter the Fourteenth Amendment's original meaning; it merely creates new challenges for legislation in this area. 

Judge Bush cites the writings of Randy Barnett, Lawrence Solum, Michael McConnell, Nathan Chapman, Will Baude, Evan Bernick, Ilan Wurman, John Harrison, and many other prominent originalists. I encourage everyone to carefully read his opinion.

Fourth, I appreciate that Judge Bush discussed abortion laws from Ohio in the 1860s:

Specific evidence in that regard comes from the very state where this case arose. In February of 1867, a committee of the same Ohio state senators who had voted to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment just one month earlier issued a state Senate report advocating for amendments that would strengthen Ohio's abortion prohibition in light of an "alarming and increasing frequency" of abortions. 1867 Ohio Senate Journal App'x 233. The report proclaimed that "the willful killing of a human being, at any stage of its existence, is murder." Id. at 234. And that view was by no means an outlier: there is evidence from many states that the ratification generation did not understand the Fourteenth Amendment to bar abortion restrictions. See, e.g., Casey, 505 U.S. at 952–53 (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (demonstrating that a clear majority of states restricted abortion in the Fourteenth Amendment ratification generation). That evidence reinforces the clear showing that the Fourteenth Amendment's original meaning allows a state to prohibit eugenic abortions.

Fifth, Judge Bush concludes that he will not "extend" a Supreme Court precedent that is inconsistent with original meaning:

That history also raises serious questions as to the correctness of the Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence more generally as a matter of the Constitution's original meaning. See, e.g., Gonzales, 550 U.S. at 169 (Thomas, J., concurring); Stenberg, 530 U.S. at 956 (Scalia, J., dissenting); Casey, 505 U.S. at 952–53 (1992) (Rehnquist, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). As lower court judges, we should be reluctant to extend that jurisprudence further in the absence of a Supreme Court holding that directs us to do so. 

I will continue to highlight originalism in the lower courts, where judges decline to extend non-originalist precedents. This trend will eventually trickle up to the Supreme Court.